How the 46 Defense Ended the Middle Linebacker Era

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What Happened to Linebackers

Brian_UrlacherWhile listening to an podcast I heard one of the host ask something to the effect, “Why aren’t there more inside linebackers in the first round?” I thought the answer was obvious.

Football Evolves.

What happened to the T formation, or the wishbone? Football talent, minds, and rules pushed these offensive formations into extinctinction. Don’t panic. Middle linebackers will stick around, but football changed. And the middle linebacker position evolved.


The linebacker position reached its apex from 1965-1973 when a creature prowled the gridiron striking abject fear into offenses.

Dick Butkus played with an emotion that the English language fails to describe. Butkus played beyond hatred and rage. Butkus considered an opposing offense willing to line up across from him as a personally most offensive insult.

But another Chicago Bear would change football forever, and the middle linebacker position with it.

The 46 Defense

No one doubts that Mike Singletary played at a Hall of Fame level. But a safety he played with produced a bigger impact on the game of football, Doug Plank, number 46.

Buddy Ryan created a defense based on dropping strong safety, Doug Plank, into a linebacker position and lining the two outside linebackers over the tight end creating a 6-2 defense. A matchup problem that almost every team couldn’t decipher.


“Now I have precisely the right instrument at precisely the right moment of history in exactly the right place.” Buddy Ryan could have said this, but it was George C. Scott in the movie Patton. In 1985 Buddy Ryan had precisely the right defense at the precisely the right moment in history with the precisely the right personnel.

The 1985 Bears 46 defense ran over and destroyed offenses like Patton’s Third Army ran over and destroyed German defenses in the fall of 1944.

The Bill Walsh Effect

Bill Walsh disliked Buddy Ryan more that a little. The Bears beat the 49ers during the regular season in 1983. Leading up to the NFC championship game in 1984, the Bears started running their mouths. Bill Walsh took this a little personal, and found the 46 defense achilles heel.

The Three Step Drop

The 46 defense depends on pressuring the quarterback. By using a three step drop the Niners defeated the 46 defense in the 1984 NFC championship game. Montana released the ball before the defense could reach him.

The next year, in tragic Shakespearean irony, the only team to go undefeated in the Super Bowl era defeated the team most likely to become the second team to go undefeated. The Miami Dolphins defeated the Bears, with short passes again.

The Bears won the Super Bowl with the 46 defense, but the 46 defense never won another Super Bowl. It’s kryptonite was identified.

Three Wide Receiver Sets and the Death of the Fullback

Bill Walsh continued to work at defeating the 46 Defense. According to Howie Long in, Football For Dummies, Walsh discarded the fullback for a third wide receiver.

Other variations included a double tight end set, moving the second back up into a wingback, and a new position called, the move, or H, back. 

The Goal of the New Formations

Remember the 46 defense is basically a 6-2, eight in the box. The best way to defeat eight in the box is to throw.

The 46 has eight in the box, two cornerbacks and a deep safety. That is it. As soon as the offense puts a slot receiver out, or a second tight end, the 46 must adapt. Someone has to cover the extra receiver.

From there the quarterback has three one on ones to choose from. Add a shotgun, or pistol formation and the 46 defense is stressed to the max.

Football evolves and the three wide receiver set is now a staple of every offense.

Modern Day Football

Rich Shanahan brought back the running attack a little with the stretch offense. But other than that, the bread and butter of offenses, since Bill Walsh’s discovery, lies in the passing game.

In 1976 Steeler fullback, Rocky Bleier, and halfback, Franco Harris, both ran for over 1000 yards. Against the traditional two wide receiver set, the middle linebacker’s purpose was to stop the run. There were two cornerbacks for the wide receivers and a strong safety for the tight end. The defensive line occupied the offensive line and the linebackers took on the lead blocker and runner.

The Transitional Linebackers

Ray LewisRay Lewis could be considered a traditional linebacker in the mold of Dick Butkus. However, one of his contemporaries, and future Hall of Famer, played safety in college, not Linebacker. Brian Urlacher transitioned from safety in college, to linebacker in the NFL. With the multiple receiver sets, the middle linebacker now covers the tight end. And, Urlacher was the perfect linebacker for the new NFL defense.

The middle linebacker still needs to play the run, but must also be able cover speedy running backs and tight ends. 

Permanent Effects of the 46

The 46 defense was all about getting pressure on the quarterback. In the 1980s the New York Giants didn’t need the 46 defense to get pressure on the quarterback. The Giants had the future of football at outside linebacker, Lawrence Taylor.

The Outside LInebacker/Defensive End, Edge Rusher

To combat the multiple wide receiver sets, the defense needed extra defensive backs. Therefore, to get pressure on the quarterback, the defense needed an edge rusher that could create havoc on the offense all by himself.

As the inside linebacker position withers from the first round of the NFL draft, the outside linebacker/defensive end, edge rusher flourishes. More edge rushers appear in the first round than inside linebackers in recent history.

And the 2017 NFL draft seems to be following this trend with only Rueben Foster as the only inside linebacker as a lock to go in the first round. Meanwhile, there are a half dozen edge rushers that will probably be drafted in the first round.

Other Positions

Inside linebacker isn’t the only position that has changed. The power back is not as valuable as the versatile back that can split out, or catch the ball out of the backfield. The fullback position is on life support.

The cornerback and wide receiver gets a lot of attention these days. Receivers are now 6-5 and corners are 6-3. There is a battle going on the perimeter to be bigger stronger faster. 

Finally, the offensive tackle has been paid a premium since the days of Lawrence Taylor.


Football continues to evolve. And the three wide receiver set isn’t the last change. More schemes are tried out every year. Some will fail. Some will succeed. Think of the wide receiver screen, the wildcat formation, or more recently, the read option. Like submarine vs. antisubmarine warfare, each side tries to outdo the other, to come up with the best attack to defeat the enemy. One thing is constant. Football continues to evolve.


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